by: Miriam Mogilevsky
A few weeks ago, an organization of conservative LGBT folks and their allies called GOProud endorsed Mitt Romney for president. Surprise, surprise: a conservative group endorsing a conservative presidential nominee.
Dan Savage, however, was apparently irritated enough by this to comment on it. He tweeted, “The GOP’s house f*****s grab their ankles, right on cue…” with a link to the story, followed by the word “pathetic.” Except that he didn’t use the asterisks.
One could hardly design a more controversial and, in my view, offensive message. First of all, the phrase “house f*****s” is a blatant allusion to another offensive term, one laden with historical meaning: “house Negros” (or “n*****s”). In the antebellum South, slaves were divided between those who worked in the fields and those who worked in the plantation owner’s house. The house slaves were typically lighter-skinned and received better clothing and food, and the type of work they did was less physically taxing than that of the field slaves.
A century later, Malcolm X characterized the “house Negro” as a slave who is more likely than a “field Negro” to support—at least tacitly—the institution of slavery, because it has afforded him or her an easier life than it did to the field slave. Similarly, he described African Americans who wanted to quietly live and work among whites as “house Negros,” and himself and his fellow activists as “field Negros.”
It is worth noting, however, that Malcolm X’s characterization of house slaves as having easier lives than field slaves was not necessarily always accurate. Because they worked in the house near the master, female house slaves were much more likely than field slaves to be sexually victimized by their masters, and slave women had no legal protection against sexual assault.
In any case, this is the complex and painful analogy—which I have probably oversimplified here—that Savage has, for some unknown reason, chosen to invoke. To him, LGBT folks who support conservative politicians are like “house Negros” because they are willing to support a power structure that others (rightfully) consider oppressive.
The question of why members of the LGBT community would support anti-gay politicians is a valid one, and we should ask it. However, flippantly referencing the legacy of slavery is not the way to do it. Furthermore, many people in the African American community resent the comparisons between gay rights and civil rights. As a white man, Savage should be mindful of this when he uses analogies involving slavery.
The rest of Savage’s tweet is no better. “Grab their ankles” is, obviously, a reference to being the bottom during anal sex. Historically (and, to some extent, currently), bottoming has been viewed as the “inferior” position. Through the mid-20th century, for instance, it was still considered “normal” for straight-identified men to occasionally have sex with other men, but only as long as they stuck to being the top. The men who bottomed, on the other hand, were the ones who were “really” gay, and who bore the brunt of the marginalization. (If you’re interested and haven’t read it already, George Chauncey covers this ground and much more in his book Gay New York.)
So, in insinuating that LGBT conservatives are “grabbing their ankles” by supporting Romney, Savage is perpetuating the idea that being a bottom is degrading and wrong. One would think that a supposedly progressive sex columnist like Savage wouldn’t want to send that message.
Most importantly, however, Savage’s use of the word “f*****” in this context is harmful. Unlike gay activists who choose to reclaim the term and use it to describe themselves, Savage is clearly using it with its original purpose—as a slur. In referring to people whom he dislikes and with whom he disagrees using this word, Savage is saying that there’s something wrong with being, well, a f*****. Although some actually do defend Savage by equating his tweet with a “reclaimed” use of the word, it clearly isn’t.
Savage’s statement would be homophobic and problematic enough for anyone to make, but it’s especially wrong when coming from someone who started an entire campaign to encourage young LGBT people to persevere in the face of bullying. Given that many of the people he hopes to reach with It Gets Better have probably been called “f*****” by their bullies, what kind of message does it send if Savage himself uses that word derisively? (Hint: a crappy one.)
One could argue, of course, that Savage was simply “angry” and that his anger led him to respond the way he did. However, while someone could perhaps be forgiven for making such a remark verbally without having had enough time to think it through, it’s a bit harder to justify once you’ve put it in writing and onto the internet. And even then, the use of the slavery analogy in particular makes me seriously question whether or not Savage even cares whether or not he’s being offensive.
Unfortunately, in crafting his response to GOProud’s endorsement, Savage chose to ignore the history behind the language he uses. In doing so, he demonstrated yet again his unwillingness to examine his own privilege and to consider the effects that his choice of words may have on others.
Miriam Mogilevsky is a senior at Northwestern University. In a year she will graduate with a degree in psychology and pursue a career that involves asking people about their feelings. She enjoys reading and writing about social justice, politics, culture, sexuality, and mental health. For this purpose, she has a blog, a Tumblr, and a Twitter.